Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An Ode to Mr. Witkin

One of the sad passages of life is losing a long-time companion. Three weeks ago, I lost my best buddy of 10 years (at the ripe age of 13 - he was a rescue dog): Mr. Witkin. (He finally earned the title 'Mr.' and as you read, you'll discover why.)

Why I am writing about him here? Because he was my adventure river main man during the transformative years when I came to focus upon water, rivers, and their effect on human beings.

Witkin and I had a special bond. He had been at the RR Rescue Ranch for almost a year when I fell in love with him (so did my now-deceased yellow lab Ophelia, who needed a companion dog). He was handsome, smart, athletic, and responded well on leash and to commands.

I was warned, though, that he was considered almost unadoptable, since two separate parties had taken him home and then brought him back. Unfazed, I took on the challenge.

Once we got home to my small bungalow near the Los Angeles River in Valley Village, I began to understand their warning. Within the first week of having Witkin (whose original name was T. Rex, so that should give you an idea right away what I was dealing with, especially those extra large jaws) home, he had bitten Ophelia in a fight over a bone (she had it, he wanted it), had pinched a nerve in his left rear leg trying to jump over my wall, and had killed two squirrels in my backyard.

Undaunted, I was determined to turn this hound dog into a gentleman. One reason I had gotten him was so I'd had a larger protection dog (he weighted about 70 puonds, all muscle), so I'd feel safe when I was out walking at night or home alone.

By the time I got Witkin (whom I named after Bernard Witkin, the father of California law, in homage to my law school experience), my husband had died and I was making monthly trips to the small hamlet of Kernville, California, to work on the family cabin there and take a break from the stress of big city living in Los Angeles.

Kernville was soon the place where Witkin and I were both happiest: he had 2 and 1/2 acres of fenced paradise to roam in and I had mountain air and the melody of the river's roar to calm me. Did I mention that he was the best car dog ever?

We had lots of fun during our mountain adventures (we moved there in 2002 and had the two best years playing in the water). We hiked miles of nature trails, stirred up the natives with new ideas, and drove on unbelievable adventures into the Sequoia National Monument where no cellphones or GPS devices worked. He and Ophelia were even 'officials' of the 2003 International Wildwater World Cup Championships along the Upper Kern River.

All good things must come to an end, so soon we were leaving the mountains for the ocean, settling into a beach house steps from the sand in Ventura, California. Witkin loved the beach as much as he loved the mountains. In fact, he became adept at unlatching my yard gate and toodling down the lane to the sand for a run, with Ophelia in tow. More than once, when my cellphone would ring, the voice on the other end would say, 'I've got your dog.' Once he escaped all the way to the Ventura Pier, 2 1/2 miles from home. Those were the good old days, when dogs could roam on the beach in Ventura. Sadly, that is no more. Witkin also loved to go bicycle running with me on the beach bike path - me on the bike, him running beside me. We took many road trips up the Ventura River and Matilija Creek to Ojai and once explored the entire length of the Santa Clara River, which flows over 84 miles from Acton to the sea. Ironically, even though Witkin loved being near the water he did not like being in the water!

Four years ago, dear Ophelia went to heaven and Witkin and I returned from our mountain-ocean adventures to Los Angeles. Now our river explorations turned urban, as we explored all along the Arroyo Seco, walked both the Arroyo Seco and Los Angeles River Bicycle Paths, and used our outings to remind fellow dog owners to pick up their poo and trash to help stop pollution in our natural waterways.

Once we returned to the Greater LA area and settled in Pasadena, it became evident that the tests of time were catching up with my once 'brat boy.' The dog who once was 100% hound dog had become 100% gentleman. He was loved and adored by my river friends, my landlord, and my real estate office colleagues. In fact, my landlord and I would joke that he ran the household - we were just the hired help.

A few months ago, Witkin began losing weight and slowing down significantly, especially for a once very athletic dog. No longer could he jump into and out of my Jeep as he had done for so many years. Often, I would come home and find him shivering. Blood tests revealed the dreaded: he had Cushing's Disease and a cancerous tumor.

All dog lovers sooner or later face that awful moment of decision to put down their pet. It was painful but easier that I thought because I knew Witkin hated not being able to run around and rule the roost the way he always had. On March 2nd, Mr. Witkin went to the Rainbow Bridge.

So why an ode to this dog? Because Witkin was more than just a river dog - he was my exploring companion and faithful pal during my early years of watershed protection and river restoration. We 'ran' rivers all over California, though I could never get him into whitewater rafting. We drove along beaches and lakeshores and once almost got my 4x4 Jeep stuck in the sand. We'd sit and watch the full moon reflection on the Kern River together, illuminating the night sky as though it were day. 

What Witkin taught me more than anything else is that the only thing that matters in this world is love - for me, that love is about rivers and how they nourish us. For Witkin, it was the love of running free in nature, chasing birds and squirrels whenever he could and his love for me. I always knew that after a long day of work, he would be sitting by the gate, greeting me with a howl as I got home.

Thank you, Mr. Witkin, for your unconditoinal love and for leading me to the river.


  1. A magical time for you, Ophelia and Mr Witkin! Hope there will be a new friend joining you soon. Lots of Boxers need rescue.....well, truly so many do, it is very sad. Mr Witkin was a lucky boy.

  2. A really beautiful tribute to a beautiful boy! Witkin would have been proud.


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