Bonding with an animal is a very special kind of relationship, one that seems to find its way into my work regularly. How someone treats other living creatures communicates volumes about what he or she values. If you want to know who will grow up to be a villain, look no further than the kid down the block who delights in maiming insects and tormenting stray cats. Similarly, someone who can connect only to a totem creature that's a narcissistic extension of himself (think Voldemort and Nagini) is likely to be coldly ruthless to every other living thing outside his tiny circle of self. Conversely, an aimless underachiever who rescues hurt animals demonstrates a courageous compassion that can blossom into heroism. Learning to care for and communicate with a living thing whose cognition is so different from our own stretches and grows us.
Once that bond is built, it's quite hard to say goodbye.
It was painful to watch his decline over the last several years. His gait became more stiff, his back legs atrophied. He could no longer climb stairs and eventually couldn't walk on his own. A hip harness to carry his back end on walks enabled him to stay mobile for a few more months, but the degenerative neurological condition eventually hit his front legs too. When the slow decline became a sudden, cliff-like-dive and he was truly suffering, we had to make the hard decision to let him go.
I'll especially miss his wolf-like howls of joy whenever I returned home--his way of saying "Woo-hoo! The awesome one is here! I'm so psyched to see you!" It was like having my own ticker-tape parade every day, the way that dog made me feel.
Today I'm deeply sad to no longer have Nicky's trusting, joyful presence in my life. Though I expect we'll stay dog-free for a while and enjoy our two sweet kitties, I'll keep on writing canine (and equine and other species) friends for my characters.
Do animals have a role in your life? Do you incorporate animals in your fiction?