Under Analysis: Remembering and taking lessons from a king

By Mark Levison
The Levison Group

Jomo Serengeti Kenyatta died last week. He left a lesson or two behind. Not to be confused with Jomo Kenyatta, the father of the modern state of Kenya, this branch of the Kenyattas was a dog. He was named Jomo Kenyatta by his adopted parents, Cheryl and me. I first visited Kenya in the 70s when Jomo Kenyatta, the former prisoner and alleged leader of the Mau Mau protesters, was serving as Kenya’s first president. In fact, Cheryl and I had just returned from Kenya shortly before our great dane left us. Jomo’s middle name was inspired by the wild dogs of the Serengeti plain. His brindle coat made him look remarkably like those spotted dogs of East Africa, but he was a whole lot bigger.

When Jomo was young, standing on his hind legs to get a treat from my raised hand, he measured 7 feet tall. He was the biggest dog I have ever seen. I always whispered in his ear that he was the King of the Canines, and he believed it. However, like so many other kings, his reign was short. He was only 6-1/2 years old when we had to put him down.

Jomo was purchased from a questionable breeder. I wrote about the suspected bait-and-switch in this space at the time. My wife, angry that The Humane Society would not give her a great dane (because we had so many other dogs), found a breeder who claimed to be putting Jomo’s mother out to pasture after her last litter, and offered to give her to us. Near the end of the long drive to pick up the old dane, the breeder called and told Cheryl she had just been hit by a car. Cheryl was outraged that the breeder had killed “her dog,” and wanted to turn around. She would hear nothing of my logic that it had not been “her dog” since she had never even seen the dog. She was still fighting mad. In the end, I talked her into traveling the rest of the way to the breeder, and ended up buying the presumably orphaned puppy for her.
As a child, I had always wanted a big dog to wrestle with. Instead, my parents kept buying toy french poodles. So, even though I purchased the great dane in the name of Cheryl, it always felt to me like Jomo was my dog.

The breeder explained that the stitches in Jomo’s stomach were no big deal – he had suffered a hernia at birth. As it turned out, Jomo grew at such a fast rate (a pound every day for seemingly months on end), that he kept busting out of his stitches and having hernia after hernia repair – four operations all told. I don’t know if there was always something wrong with his gut, but I do know that Jomo Kenyatta required very expensive prescription dog food, and if he ate anything else, the results were really bad. Of course, he often ate other things, because like other Kings, he thought he deserved whatever sweets came into his realm. At Jomo’s height – way above the kitchen counter – his realm was vast. It was easy for Jomo to reach almost anything we forgot to put away. Sometimes, whole cakes and pies would be devoured in one or two bites from his giant jaws.

A dog the size of Jomo Serengeti Kenyatta is normally walked with a spiked collar in order to give the walker at least a modicum of control. Jomo, however, listened very well to instructions, and (other than in respect to chocolate cake), would walk alongside Cheryl and me without a leash at all. Sometimes, if we put a leash on him, he would take it out of our hands and prance around with it in his mouth to the entertainment of those we met along the way. My youngest daughter, Lila, always loved being with Jomo, and at times would take him to the park. One day, she couldn’t find a spiked collar – that was advisable in the park – so she just attached a thick rope leash to his regular collar. As they were walking along, Jomo spotted a squirrel and took off. To this day, Lila still talks about how she was projected through the air like a bullet traveling horizontal to the ground, finally crashing down flat with all of the air knocked out of her. It is one of her favorite memories.

Jomo’s incredible size had its advantages. We live in a nice house in the inner-city, but security is something one thinks about. We never had to be concerned with Jomo around. As soon as visitors spotted the giant standing at our glass front door, they always staggered backward. The funny thing was that even though Jomo looked imposing, he was the most gentle and loving of any dog Cheryl and I have had, and we’ve had a lot.

Unfortunately, Jomo’s intimidating size was also his problem. As giants of our own human species tend to have short lives, that was the case with this King of the Canines. He was so large that he developed degenerative spine disease and his hips didn’t last very long either. During the last few days it was a little tough to see our loving pal laying around, not able to get up without help. The other dogs knew that the King was fading, and it plainly disturbed them. They did what they could to comfort him.

I previously had a veterinarian come to my house to put down Sabaka, the samoyed that my three girls grew up with. I found the process of giving our dog a shot, which seemed to relax him and then put him to sleep forever, a good system. When it came time to do that for Jomo, Cheryl told me she couldn’t be there for that part. I told her I understood, but I actually thought it would be good for her to see how peaceful the process is. In the end, she stayed.

Being a lawyer, I can’t help thinking about our laws against euthanasia. Our society thinks it’s fine to administer a peaceful goodbye to our animals, but we can’t legally do that for our parents or children. This is, of course, not an easy subject – dogs aren’t people – and any method can be abused. I know for some people religion seems to be involved, but then religion also seems to be involved with the group that recently beheaded James Wright Foley in God’s name.

When I think about Jomo’s life, it was wondrous, I think for him, and I know for us, even if it was short. In the end, he didn’t suffer much. That’s what I wanted for him. Maybe we ought to think about the possibilities of achieving results like that for our other loved ones?
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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm of Lashly & Baer. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2014 Under Analysis, LLC.

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