Fourteen years ago my then-boyfriend came running across the farm courtyard with two soggy, filthy socks in his hands. He was carrying them carefully, holding them up in the air, and our dog, Berry, was trudging behind him, looking very anxious. She was heavily pregnant and we had been awaiting the Big Day for a week or so. I had lovingly prepared a special birthing dog box with a warm blanket and one of my stinky trainers, which she had happily adopted and had been sleeping in. But of course, when the moment came, she had chosen a quiet, dusty corner in one of the old barns, away from us and the rest of the world. The socks were not socks; they were puppies. My boyfriend had found her with them and was now luring her back to the birthing box where we could look after her and her newborns.
The day went on, with Berry squeezing out a puppy every 30 minutes to an hour. In the end there were twelve. She was exhausted and looked even more anxious once they were all born. She must have been thinking “hang on – twelve babies? – I’ve only got ten nipples! Uh-oh …” And she was right. There were too many pups for her to look after. We naively decided to keep all twelve, at least until they could be weaned, which is three months. So poor old Berry had to feed them for three months, with them yelping and leaping up at her, scratching her belly with their pointy little claws. We fed her – tons and tons and tons of raw meat and rice supplemented with olive oil and grated carrots and parsley – but it wasn’t enough. By the time the puppies were three months old and heading off to their new owners, Berry was as thin as a rake. Later, a vet friend told me that dogs have large litters because in the wild, one puppy would fall into a ditch, another would be squashed, another would drown, and in the end there would be just five or six pups for the mother to look after. In our modern pet-loving world, we caring owners take care that all the pups survive, that no-one is squished or lost or frazzled, but we’re not actually doing the mother any big favours.
Berry recovered though. It took her a while but she got her strength back and put on weight and muscle. She lived to be fourteen. Out of the twelve puppies there were five black ones and seven beige ones. All looking very much like pure-bred labradors despite being a cross between labrador, pointer, German shepherd and boxer. But the labrador genes won out. Out of the beige ones there was just one female, and at least half of the people interested in taking a pup home wanted a beige female. But I liked her and didn’t want her to go straight away. I figured it would be easy to find her a home when the time came, so I found myself saying “Non, désolée, on n’a que des blancs males.” My favourite puppy continued hanging out with me in the vegetable plot and sleeping against my legs under the table. One day my boyfriend heard me telling another potential pup-adopter that we didn’t have any beige females. “Why did you tell them we don’t have any?” he asked, “you know we do! Wait a sec, don’t you start thinking you’re going to keep the little one – we’ve already got Berry – one big dog is enough!” He was right. One big dog was enough. But I ended up keeping her anyway. By then we had both fallen in love with her and she was good company for Berry, so she stayed on with us. I named her Baloo as she was so easy-going. She also looked like Baloo the bear in Disney’s The Jungle Book, all puppy fat and friendly face. So Baloo and Berry were our dogs and having two didn’t prove any more work than having one. Baloo was even a great shepherdess, herding my boyfriend’s sheep in like a pro. She was easy to train and eager to please. We adored her.
When my boyfriend and I split up, I left with Baloo. I ran away with the circus, so she became a circus dog, sleeping beneath the bleachers while we performed the show and guarding the big-top and my caravan. Her brother-pup was also in the circus company, as the director is a good friend who had adopted one of Berry’s puppies, so Baloo and Zazie hung out together and shared water bowls. Zazie died this summer, and that made me wonder how much longer Baloo is going to be around. She is truly an old lady now – fourteen is about ninety in dog years. She is tone deaf and a bit rusty in the mornings, but she is still able to hike through the hills with us, even if we sometimes have to wait for her. Today was her fourteenth birthday. Tommy and I took her for a valley walk this morning and sang “Happy Birthday to yoooooo-hoooo Balooooooo-hooooo” across the hills .
I am crossing my fingers today wasn’t her last birthday, but if it was, she has already had a beautiful life and brought us a huge amount of pleasure and laughter. I have a secret theory that she is Marilyn Monroe reincarnated, as she is so soft, blonde, beautiful and boo-boo-bee-doo. Another friend used to say Baloo was our spiritual leader. I suppose if we all spent as much time simply sleeping, patiently waiting and watching the world go by as she does, we would all be calmer and less obsessed with what we look like/own/have achieved in our lives, and very possibly a lot happier.
Baloo, ninety years old, the new Dalai Lama.