Saturday, January 16, 2016

Joann Magee: Ivan’s Story

By Joann "Jo" Farnham Magee

It all started in early January 2015 when I found a Great Dane lying in a ditch near our home. As I approached him, he raised his head and hobbled to his feet. He didn’t immediately run away, but he made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with me. As I spoke softly to him he started to walk off, and that is when I noticed his leg wound, which was visibly open down to the bone. As I stood watching, he ran into the woods, where he had apparently been living for quite some time given his deteriorating condition. He was so thin and could not put any weight on the wounded leg. The next week or two I saw very little of him. He would go to our pond to drink and then run back into the woods, not giving anyone a chance to get close. My neighbor said that he thought the Dane had been dropped off, as no one in our area had a rental cabin or a large dog—and he has lived in the same place for over fifty years and would know. Mid January we had a light snowfall, and my husband and I went walking into the woods, following the Dane’s tracks in the snow. We were able to see all of his trails, which seemed to just circle around with no definite stopping place.

Lessons in Patience
In early February, while on a walk, I found the Great Dane’s hideout—his base camp area, which happened to be in the next pasture from our home. Since my first sighting of him I always carried warm hot dogs in my pockets whenever I went walking, for I never knew when I would come upon him. I had at this point named him Ivan, for it seemed like a strong name to me, and for him to survive in the freezing winter without food or a warm shelter was a definite sign of strength.
From that day on I started taking food to him twice a day, at the same time every day, sitting for hours through any type of weather, hoping to see him come to eat. It was a long process, which helped me find patience, which is indeed a virtue. Each trip to the pasture, about a quarter of a mile one way, I carried my sitting stool, my phone, my BB gun, a bowl with kibble, a can of dog food, baggies with warm hot dogs and chicken, and a feeding bowl—which happened to be an extra bowl I had for my heifer, Breaker, who I rescued when she was only two months old. I gave Ivan small portions of food initially, as I did not want to give him too much in case his system had a problem processing too much food too soon after having so little so long.
    Initially Ivan would appear, see me, then run away back into the woods. I was so tempted to just take him his food and leave, but I thought better of it, as I wanted him to associate food with me, to hear the sound of the can of food opening, to hear my calling his name and know I meant him no harm. Day in and day out I went, morning and night, regardless of the weather, to bring him food. His leg wound looked terrible, but it was no longer open to the bone. To aid in his healing I started putting an antibiotic in his food bowl inside hot-dog pieces.

Hot Dogs and Freezing Cold
After having Ivan see me each time he came to eat and my leaving trails of hot dogs and chicken that brought him ever closer to me, I was thrilled to see him actually leave the shelter of the wood line and come closer. I neither made any sudden moves nor spoke to him as he approached. I wanted him to know that I would not harm him in any way or make any demands on him.
    It was now March, and the weather was getting progressively colder. I would sit for hours in freezing rain, snow, and wind, with temps of a numbing 16 degrees down to zero. I wanted Ivan to know he could count on me to be there always. I found myself praying to the dog Gods for Ivan to surface and to eat. I found myself crying when he didn’t, for I wondered if my presence was keeping him away, thereby prohibiting him to get the nourishment he so sorely needed. Just when I thought he had moved on, he would enter the pasture from a different point. Sometimes when he saw me, he would leave only to circle around and come back from a different direction to eat—progress!
    The owners of the property where Ivan was hanging out were soon to be there camping, which I knew would scare Ivan away, so for the next two weeks, I kept moving Ivan’s food bowl closer to our pasture and away from the area where the owners would be camping. Ivan managed to find his bowl each day and gobbled down his food. A friend gave us a large crate to put in the field so we could make a shelter for Ivan to get out of the wind, rain and cold.

Getting Closer
By the second week of March, Ivan felt comfortable enough with my presence and me hanging around, that I started talking to him, sometimes singing (which I found may have been the cause for him not to appear for two days). I wanted him to get used to me and my voice.
After a lot of coaxing and my gentle voice, he did come up to me and gently took a piece of hot dog out of my hand, but he would immediately cringe and back away, sometimes growling or barking. He would whine while approaching as if to ask me not to hurt him if he came closer, but in no way was he ready to trust me completely. I did not attempt to touch him, as I think that would have taken us back several steps. Both morning and evening meals I would see Ivan go into the crate to grab pieces of hot dogs and chicken I had put inside, but he would not use it as a shelter. He would go back into the woods almost immediately after eating. Then one day toward the third week in March he came and sat beside me and nudged my pockets, as he could smell the hot dogs I had buried in there. I told him I was going to pet him, and although he cringed when he saw my hand, he allowed me to pet him for several minutes. I spoke softly to him and continued for about the next half hour. It was almost dark by then, and I told him I needed to go home and that I would see him tomorrow.

A T-bone Steak
March was a very cold month for anyone to be out sitting in a pasture—or for finding shelter if they were a stray dog. The temperatures ranged from zero to 17 degrees, with freezing rain and snow hitting my face as I waited and waited for Ivan to appear. My husband kept texting me to see if I was okay and asking how much longer I was going to wait. I think at one time I had waited up to six hours for Ivan to make an appearance as I sat freezing on the little stool I carried with me. Just as I was about to leave and trudge home, feeling totally defeated, he would come out of the woods and bark at me, which I assumed was him either saying “Hello” or “Are you still here?”
    The next morning, as I fixed his food bowl, he came to eat, and then just started barking at me loudly and lunging at the same time. This went on for about 40 minutes nonstop. My husband heard him from our house and was worried that I was in danger. I assured him I was fine and that Ivan just had a lot to say. While Ivan was barking at me I would just gently say, “I know, it’s terrible what someone did to you. I would never hurt you.” He was so loud that my pet heifer, Breaker, came running across the pasture to see if I was all right. I had brought Ivan a T-bone steak bone, and after he had finished barking I gave it to him. He immediately carried it to a spot near the fence and devoured it. Breaker, along with some of the younger bulls and heifers who had joined her, stood watch over him to make sure I was okay.

A Miracle—and a Setback
On March 20, about three months after seeing Ivan for the first time in the ditch, the most miraculous thing happened. I was putting Ivan’s food in his dish and I called for him, saying, “Ivan, breakfast!” and he immediately came loping out of the woods, whining, with his tail up and wagging. He started eating while I still had my hand in his food dish stirring the combination of kibble, hot dogs, chicken, and antibiotics. After he was finished he came to sit beside me, and after a few minutes I asked if he wanted to walk with me a bit. I got up and started walking away. I looked back, and Ivan was following me. I walked along the creek and around into the pasture with Ivan following behind me. I went back to our feeding spot, collected my things, and said, “I am going home now. Do you want to come with me?” and off I went. Ivan was right by my side, and I would stop every few feet to hug him and tell him what a good boy he was. We made it all the way home, but when we got into our yard, Ivan panicked and ran off. Thinking I had moved too fast and expected too much, I was devastated. To watch Ivan run back into the woods broke my heart.

A Disastrous Date
The following day was another huge progress report. At 7:30 a.m., I went as usual to feed Ivan, and after a great bonding experience he again followed me home. He sat with me outside, and when my husband opened the door to come outside, Ivan was very protective of me and barked and lunged at him. I told my husband to go and get a warm hot dog and come out slowly and offer it to Ivan, which he did with great success. We then opened both doors of our house, and Ivan went in one and came out the other about ten times, until he felt certain he was not going to be trapped. Within 20 minutes Ivan was stretched out on our living room floor.
  We had plans to go to brunch with a friend, and when it was time to go, much to my surprise Ivan jumped in the car over me and decided he was going to go too. He would not come out of our car, as if to say, “No, you promised you’d never leave me.” It absolutely tore my heart to pieces to take him out of the car and drive away. My heart was wrenched out of my chest when I looked back and saw Ivan running after our car. I did not want this to happen after working so hard to get him to trust me. I twitched all through brunch and couldn’t wait to get home to Ivan. Everyone was telling me that this was a good thing, that Ivan would know I would leave and come back, but I was panicking thinking that I had totally blown my one chance to finally get Ivan to trust me completely. Sure enough, we get home and there is no sign of Ivan.

Two Long Days
That evening I took Ivan’s dinner at the normal time and there was no sign of him. After sitting until dusk, I again walked home dejected and feeling guilty. I could not wait for morning to arrive. I was up and out by daybreak with Ivan’s food. It had rained all night and was extremely foggy, and a torrential rain was still coming down, with heavy wind and freezing temperatures. I sat and waited. And waited. No sign of Ivan. I cried hysterically, texting my husband, saying I had blown it, that it was all for nothing, that I had totally blown Ivan’s trust. My husband told me that everything would be fine, to be patient, to not give up.
    I sat in the freezing rain for five unending hours of crying, feeling defeated, feeling devastated for Ivan, feeling like a failure, and feeling like a total jerk but knowing I would not go home until I absolutely had to when it got too dark. As I sat there with my head bent to keep the rain and wind out, I heard a whine, and I look up and Ivan is coming through the woods to me. This time, instead of going immediately to his food dish he comes to me and pushes into me. I hug him and cry some more. After he eats, I say, “Let’s go home, Ivan,” and he follows me. We go inside, and Ivan immediately makes himself at home. He lets me give him a bath, as he is covered with pine tar and caked mud. He lets me towel him off, and then we snuggle on the sofa. My heart is swelling for the amount of courage it took for Ivan to make the ultimate sacrifice to trust me.

Love and Gratitude
Every day Ivan was with us was one of great joy and love. He went everywhere with me and for a couple weeks would never leave my side. If I got up to leave the room he was there with me every single time. He loved riding in the car, and he loved going to Home Depot every day on our way to work. He loved walking and did beautifully on a leash. He was my “Baby Boy.” Ivan had many trials and tribulations to overcome. Our visit to the vet found he had arthritis, a degenerative disease in his hind legs which would eventually paralyze him, and several other small issues.
    He was almost ten years old, which is amazing, as most Great Danes have a life span of six to eight years. His wound was inoperable, as it had been too long since the initial injury, so it had to heal from the inside out, which takes a long time. Ivan also had to have a cancerous growth removed from his lip, which was benign. He was also bitten by some sort of snake in August, and the bite became infected and had to be lanced. The poor guy just couldn’t catch a break.
  His bad leg started to swell in October, and he began limping badly, some days being much worse than others. We took him to the vet for an X-ray and received the worst news ever. The X-ray showed Ivan’s leg was riddled with a very aggressive bone cancer, leaving very little bone in his leg. The vet said an aggressive cancer at this stage had undoubtedly metastasized into his lungs, and at best Ivan had only a couple of months remaining and that those months would be spent in excruciating pain. The remaining bone was so brittle and thin that his leg could fracture in any given second, so the vet strongly suggested we get Ivan out of pain.
    We made the decision to have Ivan put down right then and there, which was not an easy decision to make, yet at the same time it was the easiest decision to make. Ivan had suffered so much already before I found him. We had a wonderful seven months with him, during which he taught us so much and gave us so much love. We could not make him suffer any longer.
    Ivan passed away with his head in my lap and my love for him bursting through every fiber of my being. It was an absolute honor and a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have had the opportunity to go on this journey with Ivan, and I will forever be grateful for it and for Ivan.
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Joann Farnham Magee is a native Vermonter who married her high-school sweetheart—she and Ridge will celebrate 46 years together in November 2016. Jo is a pencil artist, an LP vinyl-record collector, a mother, a grandmother, a Harry Potter fan, an avid reader, and a golfer. She loves to travel and to go back “home” to Randolph, Vermont.
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Joann sent me many photos of Ivan, spanning their entire journey together—more than I could fit into a blog post. So I put them into a slideshow, and Joann did a voiceover. I think my favorite image is of the two of them fishing in a nearby pond. —Sara Tucker

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