It was late evening and the animal ER where I worked was quiet. Then came a pounding at the front door, locked for security in the bad neighborhood. I quickly scrambled to open it never knowing what new disaster waited on the other side. It was an officer carrying a limp German Shepherd with a basket muzzle. "I need to be in a room immediately before he wakes up" the officer demanded. I must have stuttered at the unexpected order and quickly called for a technician while escorting him to the nearest exam room. At that moment I had no idea that sedated shepherd was about to change my entire view of the world. Over the next few minutes the story unfolded. Hannibal was not a police dog, he was a rescue. And he was not injured, he was heavily sedated due to his high level of aggression. The officer who carried him had been contacted by a local rescue group who hoped Hannibal's bad attitude might serve him well as a police or protection dog. No one knew exactly what he had been through but he did have some major medical problems to go with his hostile demeanor. He had been brought to us for surgery. Paperwork was signed and he was put into a kennel in the hospital treatment area with strict instructions not to remove his basket muzzle.
The next day I met Hannibal again, but this time he was conscious. Never in all my life had I seen a dog so angry with the world. Simply walking by his kennel brought a ferocious charge, snarling and barking he would slam his 100lb frame into the flimsy kennel door. I thought to myself "why are they trying to hard to save this dog, he is horrible and beyond saving". He was hard to work with even with the muzzle. While trying to hold him for the vet exam one tech was given a bloody lip as Hannibal swung his head around in an attempt to bite, only the muzzle saved her from far worse damage. In the midst of ER chaos I was recruited to assist with monitoring his sedation during a minor procedure. I had dealt with aggressive animals before and never been intimidated but this guy was different. Even sedated he was scary. After his surgery an e-collar was added for extra buffering and he was again heavily sedated. While I feared for all our safety my heart broke for him. What horrible abuse must he have suffered to hate people so much?
Again late in the evening the officer came to see how he was doing. I watched skeptically as he climbed into the kennel with the sedate but still growling dog. The officer laid beside Hannibal and stroked him softly as I'd seen so many loving owners do. A day later Hannibal went home and we all breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't stay home long, post-op problems quickly returned him to our care. He was not urinating on his own. Hannibal was again left in our care. The next day I was shocked on arrival to see that not only was he out of his kennel and alert, he was un-muzzled! At the time I couldn't decide if the technician was brave, compassionate, or suicidal. But this dog was different. Though he was still very stand-offish he was not the terror that had tried to take down the kennel gate just a few days before. We treated him and again sent him home with his new "dad". With skeptical curiosity I watched every interaction Hannibal had with the officer. Only a few days later he was again suffering and readmitted. Now he was a different animal entirely. He was almost friendly, and we all found ourselves rooting for his full recovery. When he still wasn't going on his own we tried everything, even begging. Somehow this frightening beast had won us over.
By the end of the week a medical decision had to be made, he could not spend the rest of his life having his bladder drained everyday by the vet. The entire staff sat on the floor with him while we said our tearful goodbyes. One of the techs put her arms around him and asked me to snap a pic so she could always remember him.I was so focused on looking through the lens I never saw Hannibal coming my way.
- Hannibal's Goodbye
I only felt that warm wet tongue lick my face, it brought startled laughter and more tears. My heart broke. It was so unfair that this poor guy spent his entire life in whatever situation had turned him into a monster, only to finally find love in his last moments. The only consolation I have is that while his entire life was misery he did find love in his last moments. He left this world knowing that humans could also be kind and compassionate. And he changed all our lives forever. If Hannibal could let go of whatever demons taunted him and love again, then why can't we all?
*name changed to protect the innocent