He was our little lion king; a feisty whirlwind of energy with eyes full of wisdom and a character that enchanted. Occasionally he spooked people too, such was his strong presence. Vishnu’s background was hazy… one of his parents were definitely German shepherd, the other an unknown breed, but clearly one blessed with great beauty. This mixed heritage softened his wolven appearance and he really stood out from the pack, covered in luxuriously silky fur, a striking blend of caramel, black and sun bleached blond. Magnificent pointed ears with crimped hair bursting out captured the slightest sound while delicate, gazelle-like limbs enabled him to elegantly run at speed. But his crowning glory were his eyes, revealing a melting pot of emotions, from happy to sad, proud, vulnerable, commanding, remorseful, alert, excited, melancholy, bewitching… they drew you deep into his soul.
He was also a dog who craved stability.
Vishnu’s human mother loved him very much but she lived a hedonistic lifestyle and regularly left him with friends so she could experience the world. We became his sixth foster parents in just eleven months.
Our dog Bish, Dave and I welcomed him into our home while she travelled around India. He chewed his way through a beautiful kilim rug, the odd shoe or two and growled and snarled a lot, but none of that mattered… we’d become besotted.
For three months he filled our lives full of joy, but all too soon goodbyes loomed. Unexpectedly we received a text from his mum. 'Would we look after Vishnu for another three months’? We leapt at the chance but pleaded ‘please consider him living with us… permanently’.
The weeks dragged as we waited patiently for an answer, then on December 24th the best present arrived in the form of a text with three simple letters. ‘Mum’ realised Vishnu would have a fantastic life with us, cocooned in the evergreen hills of Ibiza and most importantly, we could offer him the stability she clearly couldn’t.
As responsible parents, we whisked him straight off to be checked out and neutered. Handsome though he was, we didn't want any mini Vishnu's running round Ibiza. He came home minus his crown jewels but with a clean bill of health. It was miraculous news because when Vishnu first holidayed with us, he came with a suitcase of toxic drugs to keep him alive. He'd been diagnosed with Leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal disease spread by sand flies and rife on the island. They especially prey on puppies, but thankfully these tests proved our puppy had been misdiagnosed.
Vishnu’s boundless energy completed our family. The young gun breathed new life into our seven year old collie-cross and in turn, Bish's gentle character allowed Vishnu’s to shine and remain irresponsible. For years they romped around spreading joy and mayhem.
Unlike Bish who loved humans and dogs alike, Vishnu was a loose cannon. We had to be very careful when meeting other dogs; he demanded the alpha male position, so to avoid conflict, we’d keep him close when around them.
He was also temperamental with certain people. We think this was due to the insecurities of his formative months, being moved from person to person. He snarled and nipped at quite a few people but really he was just telling them to respect his personal space.
Vishnu’s wild spirit ran free until the age of five when a sudden metamorphosis happened. Our lives were changed too.
Around two years earlier Bish had developed a small tumour. It was attached to his spleen and eventually ballooned to the size of an orange. It slowly consumed his life-force and when the inevitable happened, the vet visited our home to be kind and euthanized him. The injection filtered through Bish’s veins and Vishnu watched over his friend taking his last breath. Saliva gushed from Vishnu's gaping jaw in an outpouring of emotion. In that instant, the mantle of maturity transferred from one dog to the other like an invisible electrical bolt of understanding.
We were deeply sad for weeks but finally the time felt right to look for a new companion for Vishnu, so the three of us visited a local rescue centre. Over 100 dogs were there, all shapes and sizes, all needing a loving home. Two in particular caught our eye. Vishnu had the final judgment and growled his disapproval at the male.
Serendipity played her ace card. Our other choice, an 18 month old girl, already had the perfect name… Bishi! She was a big strawberry blond Belgium Shepherd cross, with a cheeky glint in her eye and the most magnificent bushy tail.
On arriving at her new home Bishi followed Vishnu’s lead and plunged straight into the swimming pool… and washed away the dust from her previous existence. She’d found her utopia here after being tethered outside for the first part of her life by an owner who was tied to alcohol.
The dynamics mirrored the past with Vishnu commanding the alpha role. Bishi was no slouch though and bulldozed her way through thousands of shared adventures on pebbled beaches, hillside hikes and woodland walks. We even spent four months high up in the spectacular mountainous region of mainland Spain. On long riverside and rocky mountain trails, Vishnu sped after foxes, wild boar and ibex. He had no chance of catching them as the chase was always accompanied by his raucous yelps to ensure they'd run faster still.
After much deliberation, we took a massive risk with Bishi. For years walking her had to be done on a long lead as she was consumed with wanderlust and though we tried every way possible, we couldn’t change her behaviour. Time became the slow healer and we tentatively set her free. It was wonderful to finally watch Vishnu and Bishi playing, swimming in the sea and sniffing aromatic smells side by side with no worries of her disappearing into the distance.
They really came into their own as a team and worked as one on walks and at home too, reminding us regularly 'it's time for treats' with their eyes.
Eventually ageing caught Vishnu up with a vengeance. He was around 12 years old when his hips started causing him pain, something German shepherd’s are prone to. So we put him on anti inflammatory drugs to combat this. He also developed respiratory issues, sounding far worse than it actually was. Again this was controlled with daily doses of tablets.
Both these ailments made him slow down a little physically, but mentally he continued to roar like a teenager.
Autumn was brief for Vishnu and the bleak winter arrived far too early.
We noticed the brightest stars in Vishnu’s eyes dimming as dementia infiltrated. Staring blankly at walls became common place. Of course he was as gorgeous as ever, in fact even softer and more loving, just a different character to the rascal we were used to. His eyes no longer expressed a multitude of emotions and he lost the ability to give a beaming Hollywood smile to greet us with when we’d been away, be it for 5 minutes or 5 weeks. It was a smile that lit up our lives and made us laugh every time he flashed it.
There were physical changes in Vishnu too. Time dusted his muzzle with a light coating of snow white, the rich caramel fur faded to fawn and his mane became peppered with strands of silver. For many years his huge gremlin-like ears caught every sound like a baseball glove, but gradually this acute hearing disappeared and his elegant gazelle-like running slowed right down to a snail’s pace.
He’d been a real home boy either lying on the sofa or resting right under our feet; he was never far from sight, sound or touch. But now Vishnu started spending more time outside, still within sight but breathing in the fresh air, away from the 'noise' of the TV. He also began sleeping outside at night rather than lying on our bedroom floor or snuggling up at the bottom of our bed. We'd leave the large living room doors open so he could choose his own sleeping spots between dusk and dawn.
All these little changes fell soft as snowflakes into our brains and eased us into new beginnings.
June 2016… the month had passed half way point. I was busy preparing to travel to the UK for the final judging of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation's 'Wildlife Artist of the Year' competition and my annual 'Artist in Residence' at Nature in Art; both important dates in my artistic calendar.
Suddenly Vishnu's health plunged so much we feared we may lose him. I cancelled my UK trip as he needed us both more than ever before. Tests proved the drugs preventing arthritis from crippling his joints had ceased to be as effective. And we received the devastating news that his kidneys were starting to fail.
The following day in rare moments when he lay down, I lay beside him, cradled his head in my hands and gazed deeply into his beautiful brown eyes. The purest love poured out; I'd never seen them sparkle so intensely or intently. I returned that love through misty eyes and wailed more than I've ever done in my life. The thought that he may die was incomprehensible.
Out of desperation, and although Vishnu hated the vet, we took him for a second time in three days. Stood up on the vet’s table Vishnu's' poor little legs shivered with fear and pain so I cupped his head close to mine and whispered meaningless words to reassure, while Dave gently stroked him as more tests were done.
The results came back immediately and they shone a positive light on the situation. The vet felt the inflammation may have stopped Vishnu's ability to pass urine so a catheter was inserted. This eased his immense discomfort and explained why he’d paced for days and also why tests showed the beginnings of kidney failure. The build up of toxic urine had given a false result. His kidneys were fine and dandy… our mood too.
We brought Vishnu home with a renewed vigour for life and a whole new regime of drugs; initially a burst of cortisone, then a gentler monthly wonder drug.
The months that followed were a blurring of extreme emotions. We altered many of our habits to fit in with his as he grew more dependent on Dave and I. Gone were the regular dinner parties and late nights watching TV as he became disturbed by the noise and presence of people after dark. He’d pace until we went off to bed… so we abided.
For his last eight weeks lying down proved too painful for his joints and for his final three getting up too, so we did this for him. All his life, he’d been a fiercely proud dog who tried hard to maintain control, but now he completely surrendered to our care. He still got excited by his twice daily walks, enjoyed his food and reveled in the endless love and affection we gave him. And he received pleasure from looking out at his hills. His life definitely contained many flashes of joyful moments.
Living with an elderly pet is such an enriching experience. It is also incredibly testing, choosing the kindest time to let them go. In hindsight, I believe we were only three hours too late making that heartbreaking decision.
Since that ghastly day in mid June, we had been gifted 25 extra golden weeks with Vishnu, but at shade after 9pm on the 29th December 2016 we simply had to say goodbye.
Vishnu, our little Lion King is buried in the garden. He rests next to his old friend Bish and facing his domain… the evergreen hills of Ibiza.