By Becky Aubut
FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — If you own any type of pet, you already know: they are your family. On Jan. 22, 2008, Bella was born among 13 (yes, 13!) wriggling, furry labradoodle pups. When we went as a family to choose our new baby, she was the one pup that came right up to me. While my oldest daughter petitioned us to select the puppy she had in her arms, I was adamant we take home the pup who had “picked” us. That March we brought Bella home and with that, I had a fourth child.
At the time I was a freelance journalist working out of the home, and with hubby at work and all three of my children in school, Bella spent the next few years on my bed looking at me, snoozing in the most uncomfortable looking positions, and simply being my friend while I toiled away at my computer.
I was the one who taught her to go to the bathroom on command so when the winter snow swirled around, or the rain pelted us in the face, she and I could do a hit and run outside when I walked her. Bella was the one who trained me to recognize that a clock does not always set the call of nature, and that the sit, stare, and do a weird up/down move (which affectionately became known as the “poopy dance”) was a great way to let mom know she was ready for round two. She learned to high-five along with sit, and would force herself onto every visitor who came in our house; she made friends wherever she went.
For me, Bella was my 75-pound lapdog. I was in tune with my “puppa.” My days began and ended with her. For the next eight years, my fur baby saw two of the human babies off to college while the third entered high school. Like my kids, Bella was on my mind every day, her blessed furriness never far from me; from seeing her plop herself down under the dining room table to watch me make dinner, to knowing if I brought out the cutting board she would stand guard hoping for a donation. Teen-agers aren’t well known for wanting to hang out with their mom on a regular basis, but I could always count on Bella being by my side on the floor or on the couch, always within an arm’s reach for an ear or butt scratch.
Certain dinners were her favorite, including any time I made turkey, and this year’s Thanksgiving saw the full feast on display as I snuck her pieces while carving up the bird on that Thursday. I have always made soup from leftover turkey, and the following Saturday after Thanksgiving found me boiling the turkey while my youngest daughter, hubby and I began putting up Christmas decorations. Bella had been somewhat mopey that day, but nothing raised an alarm until mid-afternoon when she came up from resting in the downstairs playroom, and in typical Bella fashion made a beeline for her mama when I called out a greeting in her direction.
Within a few seconds my happiness turned to horror as I looked at her furry face and realized something was tragically wrong with her left eye. Instead of it being brown, it was a deep burgundy. I immediately went into a controlled, panic mode, and within 10 minutes I had made some phone calls, and was gently told by Bella’s local vet to take her to the 24-hour emergency vet services in Swansea.
As with anything that happens abruptly and changes the direction of your life into a sudden, crisis-filled angle, the rest of the day’s memories are of blurb-filled moments. My struggle to get Bella in the car because it became clear she was blind in that eye and her depth perception was off. Her head sticking out the car window as we pulled out of our driveway and headed down the street. My derpy dog having energy enough to sniff around this new environment of the waiting room of the emergency vet, and rip two decorative ornaments off their Christmas tree, but being unable to see the scale to be weighed by the vet technician.
Once we made it into the exam room, blood was drawn. I remember petting her nonstop as we waited for the results, and realizing her gums were bleeding. Questions were asked, and possibilities weighed. My girls and hubby all sending texts, asking if I knew anything. Bella was admitted and I left with her leash and dog collar — two items we bought the day we picked her out from her litter mates. As I drove away, I reassured myself that they wouldn’t have let me leave if it was serious.
I remember seeing my youngest daughter’s face when I came home; the tears of both girls as I explained Bella was in the best place she could be at the moment. I called the ER vet around 9 p.m. to check up on her; by 11 p.m., I received a call telling me things had taken a turn for the worse. At 1 a.m., the call came that I needed to sign off on an expensive, last-ditch treatment to save her, and without hesitation I told them to do what they could. And at 3:30 a.m., that early Sunday morning, the final phone call came, and my crying woke up my youngest daughter. We woke up the rest of the family with the sad news — Bella was gone.
The final diagnosis was immune-mediated thrombocytopenia, a fast-acting, autoimmune disorder in which a dog’s body attacks its own blood platelets. Platelets are needed for blood clotting, and while some dogs’ symptoms can be controlled by medicine, most dogs succumb to the disease. Articles about the disease state that it can be triggered by vaccinations, but Bella had been vaccinated many months before, so we will never know what triggered her immune system to go haywire.
Bella was our first family dog, and the pain of losing her honestly took my breath away. Hours after that final phone call I was on the road bringing my oldest daughter back to college; a four-hour round trip that was full of tears. I came into work the following day and my fellow Anchor peeps rallied their support.
What hurt the most were the constant reminders — Bella’s crate, her toys, her favorite bones still in their package, and especially the two large bags of recently ordered dog food that would be forever unopened in our garage. I couldn’t just throw these things out, so I set about looking for a place that would take these items, and after a quick Google search, found The Pet Pantry (www.HelpFeedPets.org), a volunteer run ministry that distributes a variety of pet food and treats on the last Saturday of every month at Coyle and Cassidy High School in Attleboro. Open to any family in need, to qualify for food from The Pet Pantry, a family must be eligible to receive food from the Coyle and Cassidy Food Pantry.
Formally created in 2009 by Jessica Stone when she was a student at Coyle and Cassidy High School, Stone took over for a student who was paying for pet food out of her own pocket and giving it away when the food pantry was open.
“When she graduated, she no longer had the time for it, so I took it on,” explained Stone. “However, I didn’t have the financial means to purchase food on my own.”
For the next year, Stone did the research and created the 501(c) nonprofit on her own, and “Mr. Cote graciously allowed me to operate that through the food pantry as a separate entity,” she said of Michael Cote, a teacher at Coyle and Cassidy and the food pantry director.
Getting The Pet Pantry off the ground wasn’t as easy as she thought, though: “I thought, as a student, I could go out, get some donations, buy some pet food, and give it away,” said Stone. “I realized very quickly that it was really difficult, and that people don’t want to give you money not knowing who you are. I was doing it on my own with the food pantry, and Mr. Cote didn’t want to redirect any funds away from the food pantry, which is totally understandable because what they do is wonderful.”
Once she got the nonprofit status — again, not an easy task as a sophomore in high school — she was able to gain traction. Already a volunteer at area animal shelters, she began to put up flyers and posters. Stone also worked at an animal hospital in Stoughton, and they also allowed her to post up information and place bins for donated items. Area businesses also placed bins, plus Stone also won a one-time grant to help supply food.
“Then Petco in Mansfield and in Taunton actually partnered with my company, and they used to run a program where for every can of food you bought, they would donate a treat, toy or sometimes cans of food,” said Stone, adding that neither Petco does that any longer, but that individuals “can still go in, buy and donate.”
Over the years, Stone has met many people who have appreciated her hard work and services. Then there are some who question why they should donate money to animals when there are people who need help?
“I don’t think people really understand that sometimes that if you fall on tough times, you might have young kids at home and you’re finding yourself going to a food pantry,” said Stone. “To be able to approach someone and get dog food or cat food, you can keep that animal at home. Even when you have the stresses of life and you’re down on your luck, that pet will stay by your side and that you won’t have to give it up to an animal shelter.
“For me, it’s worked out two-fold, working in an animal shelter and animal hospital, it keeps the shelters less crowded, and less pets given up. It’s really close to my heart.”
Stone graduated from Coyle and Cassidy in 2011, and graduated this year from UMass Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in pre-vet/animal science. As she sets about applying to veterinarian schools, Stone’s schedule is making it harder for her to keep giving quality time to The Pet Pantry, and she is hoping there’s an individual among Coyle and Cassidy’s student body — or from another school entirely — who would be willing to run the pantry. However, Stone is unwilling to walk away unless she knows the pantry is in good hands.
“I can’t give this program up,” said Stone. “I know there are people who go to that food pantry every Saturday every month, and their animals wouldn’t get assistance when it comes to food. Their dog might go hungry and they won’t be able to keep their dog.”
For those who want to donate food for dogs, cats or any other type of pets, animal treats, leashes, brushes, cat litter, etc., or would like to make a monetary donation, go to The Pet Pantry’s website: www.HelpFeedPets.org, or email them at email@example.com.
As for my family, less than a week after Bella’s passing, I went and picked up her ashes and the paw print the vet technician made after she died. When God decides to call me home, Bella will be buried with her mama.
Special thanks to the staff at New England Animal Hospital in Fairhaven, and to the staff at Mass-RI Veterinary ER in Swansea for doing their best to save our Bella, and for their amazing and gracious response to the pain of our loss.