Panda – a German Shepherd with a rare white Gene.
Nothing can prepare you for losing your best friend. When Panda passed on, at first I couldn’t believe it, then I was angry, intensely angry, then filled with guilt and sadness. It has taken me some weeks to come to terms with her death, and it’s still excruciatingly painful to recall memories of her.
I was travelling in the United States when I first learned that she had been bitten by a leopard. Living on the edge of the Nairobi Park we always knew our pets would be at risk, but Panda was too smart to get into trouble. If anyone was to get caught by a leopard or lion, we thought, it would be the other older, slower, geriatric and arthritic members of the Kahumbu-Greste Pack – Harry or Sniffy. So when I got that shocking email that Panda had been attacked but had survived I was sad but relieved. The vet said she was torn up but she’d be ok. X-ray revealed no major damage and by the third day she was up and about, he promised she’d be home by the weekend. We planned how we’d re-arrange our daily programs and looked forward to nursing her back to health. But the day before she was to come home she silently passed away in the night without any warning.
I felt cheated.
I remember well my last adventure with Panda. We had gone to the Kiserian river – Panda was addicted to water and we couldn’t stop her from leaping in. We spent hours trying to get her out of the raging water but she was in doggy-heaven swimming in circles, and ‘laughing’ at us on the slopes and bridge above. When I say addicted to water I mean SERIOUSLY ADDICTED – any amount of water would do for panda to try and submerge herself. Muddy ponds and rivers along the daily walk were what she looked for. The muddier the better.
We feared a croc would get her that day, and we knew that we’d be helpless if that happened. I was almost hoarse with screaming and whistling for her – we had to pretend to go home for her to emerge, and shake her sodden coat all over us – punishment for cutting short her game. She lost her brand new beaded collar in the river that day – it was a beautiful colourful rainbow job with her name boldly across it. We searched but never found it.
Everyone who met her was affected by Panda. Many asked where she was from, what kind of dog she was and where they could get one like her. She was beautiful. She had a face shaped like a shepherd, partly white partly brown – hence her name. She had pointed ears and her lips seemed to be painted, as well as her eyelids. She had the look of a dog wearing make-up. Under all the long silky fur she had a smallish body, with the most spectacular fox like tail. Unlike any dog I’ve ever seen Panda had the ability to speak with her eyes, she could make hundreds of expressions with her eyes alone ; confusion, smiling, sad, questioning, begging, tired, alert, suspicious, about to attack you, about to play …. What kind of dog was she? Well our vet said she was some sort of water dog, but we always suspected that Panda was actually a dog from space, some sort of curious alien sent to earth to experiment on humans and send signals back to the home planet. We got her from Kilifi one Christmas many years ago – she was Joshua’s dog, but make no mistake, he didn’t chose her, Panda chose him.
She was one of many little black puppies being sold by a cheating old German lady in Kilifi who must have thought we were ignorant fools. She wanted tens of thousands for this “German Shepherd with a rare white gene” – I could have laughed when she produced vaccination records in a pathetic attempt to persuade me that these were the pedigree certificates. Seeing that the place was a disgusting puppy mill, I planned only to get out of there as fast as possible and report them to the KSPCA. But as we sat there surrounded by sickly stinking puppies and their emaciated parents, one ugly pup leaped onto Joshuas lap and lovingly licked his chin.
That was the moment he knew that he had been chosen.
One hundred dollars later as we drove off with the smelly ball of flea filled fur and a belly full of worms I felt distinctly robbed. She was black with a white patch on her face and there was nothing pleasant about her … but she would not be ignored, she had an adorable and adoring face. That was five years ago. I feel deep guilt for almost leaving her, no amount money could be worth Panda and the joy she brought to us, and we would pay any amount of money to bring her back.
Even after a bath panda was still very ugly but she had an insatiable desire to play. Harry was the play-thing off which she hung as he yelped helplessly in pain. She had very weird features and the other dogs hated her. Her introduction to Kelly the matriarch was a chase down the lawn and a very serious bite on the back if the neck. But soon the others grudgingly accepted her. Joshua loved her and she loved him twice as much back. She loved sleeping on his bed, she didn’t like being cuddled by anyone else and would rarely look us in the eye, well, unless you had something she really wanted. Unlike most shepherds, she got on with everyone and she would observe us in a way that felt distinctly as if we were being ‘studied’. As she grew up we realized just how special she was.
When Josh tried to teach her some tricks we discovered that she was not just smart, she was super smart. The dog training book called for repetitive attempts to teach the dog to sit, lie down, beg, stay, and retrieve. Panda learned the tricks so quickly that we ran out of things to teach her. She could sniff out things with amazing skill – and combined with her love to chase balls meant that tennis played badly was a game that everyone including Panda could enjoy. If the ball went out of court she would find it within seconds. We once lost a squash ball down a steep rock slope of the rift valley – within minutes she found it, and many others that previous players had lost over the years.
To Panda all other dogs were playthings, and all human beings were created to throw stones, balls, sticks, Frisbees or anything else. She seemed to understand English and it didn’t’ matter what accent was used. When KK said “Poshishon” she knew what he meant and would sit in a specific spot to wait for food. We started all using the word but it took me a long time to understand that “Poshishon” meant “Position!” – it was his way of getting all the dogs to sit to attention before meals were served.
For years KK, our gardner, was to Panda the provider of food and play. He didn’t teach her anything, she taught him. By tracking his footprints in the beach he saw that she could find him no matter how hard he tried to hide. This led to a game that revealed just how powerful her sense of smell was. We could hide a rock or toy anywhere around the house and she would trace our steps and find it. This worked without fail and became a favourite party trick. When conversation slowed you could trust Panda to revive the crowd. And she loved other people and crowds. Panda would make a point of introducing herself to everyone, including neighbours and visiting strangers. She was especially friendly when they had parties and would notice the activity as parties were being prepared and join in. Nobody ever complained but we always apologized and tried to bring her back – she’d always find a way of going back.
Joshua began to question Panda’s loyalty when she responded more to KK than to him. At 12 years he didn’t understand that she could bond with several people. I tried to explain but he was in tears and decided to test her loyalty. One day he took her for a walk then collapsed and feigned dead. He thought she’d abandon him and justify his sore feelings, but she didn’t. She sniffed him all over, seeing that he was ok and probably sleeping she simply curled up beside him and went to sleep too. Josh was the only person who could actually snuggle with Panda, she didn’t like anyone else getting too close to her face although she would concede and let anyone give her a good back scratch.
Panda didn’t just play, she let us play with her too. She’d be up for any experiment, any adventure, and she also loved just curling up at my feet. When she wasn’t playing she’d be exploring, sniffing things out like hedgehogs, warthogs and genet cats. Now that I’ve mentioned it – cats. … whoa betide any cats in the area, …. Well domestic cats anyway. She always tried to do the right thing – perhaps she’d seen us killing rats or somehow knew that rats were not acceptable, Panda would go for anything small and rat like. Sometimes she’d get it totally wrong. One year she caught a giant rat, it’s a friendly cat sized forest animal that does not spread disease. Well she killed it and attempted to eat it. But she left the best part for me. I knew that something was wrong by the stench coming from the sofa on the veranda. There placed perfectly on the couch was the head of giant rat – she had eaten the rest of it but it had sickened her and she had thrown up little bundles of hair with tiny feet. I didn’t know what she’d eaten until I found my gift, the rotting head. The smell permeated the entire house and left us retching for days. She couldn’t have known that she did anything wrong and that experience didn’t stop her from catching rats elsewhere and delivering them like parcels at the kitchen door.
They say that dogs are like their owners – yes Peter was like Harry the golden lab, blond, always eating, friendly – far to friendly and extremely gullible. But Josh is just like Panda, wild free spirited and yes, they both share a coat full of dreadlocks.
I don’t think we ever understood or fully appreciated the capacity of her intelligence. Panda seemed to understand a huge vocabulary and learned many tricks, but perhaps what was most unique about Panda was her ability to sense the feelings of those around her. Last year after a particularly painful operation when I came home sore and sickly. She seemed to instinctively know that she had to be gentle with me. I could see the understanding of my pain in her eyes, in the way she behaved around me and in her attempts to gently please me. She would also herd away the other ignorant dogs if they were being too rough or close to me by using her body to shield me from them and their rough attempts to play.
I got the news that Panda had died when I was visiting Josh in Boston. We were both in shock, unable to talk or grieve properly. I know that like me he must have cried and cried. It didn’t make any sense, we weren’t prepared, and both of us felt cheated of a chance to say goodbye to her. We aren’t the only ones who grieved her loss, everyone at home was devastated, including the dogs. From his expressions, Pluto seemed to also understand that she had died and for weeks the other dogs didn’t go out doors and lost all interest in walks or playing. They lay about as if grieving. The life of the pack had been stripped. I know that my life has totally changed too and I struggle with memories of her every day. It’s hard to explain why she was so important to us. When giving away one of her last puppies I couldn’t be there when the lady came to meet the pups. She called me to tell me how thrilled she was with all our dogs and especially the puppy she chose and asked if we would come to her house and spend time with her. She said that she we must be a lovely people – and that she could tell through the personalities of our dogs. Most people would be insulted if they were told that they were like their dogs, not me, I am honored that someone thinks that I’m at least as good as Panda was.
On March 10th Panda was fatally wounded by a leopard that attacked as she tried to escape. She had spent the previous three nights barking incessantly from inside the kitchen where she slept with the other dogs for her own protection from predators. On that day at 10.30 am she barked and barked at a small bush then suddenly turned and ran. A leopard emerged from the bush and caught her within a few bounds. It was not at all surprising that she died trying to protect us.
RIP Panda, sweet sweet girl.
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