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A Tribute to Lakota
By Jane Singleton

Lakota always met Paul Kirschling when he came home from work, and followed him downstairs to the desk where Paul did the day’s paperwork for his transportation business located in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Lakota would stay by Paul’s side until the work was finished and looked forward to the treats Paul kept there for him.

That’s where they were the day everything started to go wrong. “He was by my side downstairs and acting fine,” Paul said. “I finished my paperwork in about 20 minutes, gave him a treat, and we walked back upstairs. That’s when he vomited for the first time. I said, ‘Kota, what’s wrong with you buddy?’”

Paul and his wife, Karen, were supposed to go out to dinner with friends that night, but changed dinner plans because they didn’t want to leave Lakota home alone while he wasn’t feeling well. Lakota quit eating that night and began his descent from 97 pounds to 83 pounds in nothing flat.

Lakota’s longtime vet, Dr. Erica Periman of Teton Veterinary Clinic, met Paul and Lakota at her office the next day. Paul said the first thing Erica asked him was if there was any chance that Lakota had gotten into something like rat poison. “I said no—you know me, he’s with me all the time. No.”

Dr. Periman did blood work on Lakota and compared it to blood work done last November. The results indicated kidney failure. She gave Lakota intravenous fluids to treat the dehydration, antibiotics, and considered the possibility of Addison’s disease, but the onset of symptoms just wasn’t right.

The vet kept Lakota hydrated, but he still didn’t eat. More blood work gave the same results as before. Erica began treatment with Prednisone. It was that day, January 29—ten days after he first became sick—Lakota began vomiting vehemently. Paul stayed on the floor with Lakota most all afternoon, hugging him. “I called Erica at about three o’clock to tell her what was going on, that I didn’t think Kota had the strength to meet her at the office. She came right over,” Paul said. “Although Kota couldn’t get up, he started wagging his tail when he saw her. Kota loved Erica. She knew as well as I did that Kota was hurting.” She went back to the office to get an anti-nausea shot for Lakota. “Just after she left, Kota asked to go outside and immediately began vomiting blood. I called Erica and she came right back to the house.”

“I had no choice. I had to do what was the hardest thing in my life,” Paul said. While Paul cradled Lakota in his arms, Dr. Periman administered the injection that ended Lakota’s suffering for good.

Paul and Karen kept Lakota with them overnight in their bed. They lay alongside of Lakota, same as always with Lakota in the middle, his head on his own pillow. “When morning came, we carried him out on his travel-bed and placed him in the van where he always rode with us. We drove him up to the Tetons so he could enjoy the mountains,” Paul said. Then, deeply grieved, Karen and Paul drove Lakota back to Jackson Hole where they had Lakota cremated. “We just couldn’t understand what had happened to him. Neither could Erica,” Paul said.

Several weeks later, the news came out about Menu Foods products and the pet food recall. From December 2006 to January 2007, wheat gluten tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and pesticides, was used in the production of pet food. Paul looked at Karen and said, “Oh my God!” The symptoms of melamine poisoning stated in the news report were Lakota’s symptoms. And two of the products recalled were products Lakota had eaten—Mighty Dog and the Iams pouches. Dr. Periman’s stunned reaction was the same as Paul’s.

By the time the Kirschlings became aware that tainted food was almost certainly the cause of Lakota’s death, they no longer had any of the food in the house. Having no reason to keep it, they had thrown it away. So testing was not possible.

“I was always so concerned over what Kota ate,” Paul said. “I thought by giving him the very best food, I was going to give him the longest life possible.” For eleven years, Lakota ate Science Diet three times a day. He was a healthy and happy boy. But since he was turning twelve soon, the Kirschlings agreed that adding a little gravy to the dry Science Diet would be a real treat for Lakota.

Paul even checked with Erica to be sure. “Be careful of too much sodium,” Erica said, “but a spoonful or two of gravy isn’t going to hurt him. Don’t worry about it.”

“I still can’t handle the guilt,” Paul said. “I wasn’t cognizant of what I was doing. But I just can’t help but question every day that if I hadn’t given him that little bit of gravy because he was going to be twelve and it was okay to have something a little extra special, that he’d be alive today.”

“I’m pretty confident that he had another year or two to live–we could see that he was getting old and we knew that time was running out, and we tried to give him even more love. But he was a healthy boy. And to go down so fast in just 10 days—and not knowing what was going on—it was so hurtful. It was just an incredible time.”

Karen, Paul, and Lakota used to go everywhere together, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If Lakota couldn’t go, neither would Karen and Paul. “All our travels were adapted to taking Lakota with us, driving cross-country, whatever,” Paul said. “We just didn’t leave him alone. So everywhere we went we drove so he could be with Karen and me. That gave us so many wonderful memories. He absolutely was a true family member.”

For Thanksgivings, Paul and Lakota would drive from Jackson Hole to Cleveland, Ohio, where family welcomed Lakota with open arms. Paul’s schedule is more flexible than Karen’s as she works for the school district, and is always limited to holiday breaks. “So Kota and I would drive across the country to Cleveland, and Karen would fly in for the week, then fly back home,” Paul remembers. “And Kota and I would meander our way back to Jackson Hole in our van. So a lot of times, it was just Kota and me.”

When traveling, Lakota carried his own weight—he’d carry his two pillows into the motel room one at a time, then go back to the van and get his stuffed animals and carry them to the room one by one. People used to stop and watch him, saying “What an amazing dog!” “It was some sight to see him traveling down a motel hallway carrying a full-sized pillow in his mouth,” Paul said. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Lakota’s ashes made the journey with Paul and Karen when they traveled to St. Louis to visit daughter Andrea and son-in-law Jeff last month. “We put Kota’s box on the console of the van where it belongs,” Paul said. Paul bought the van when Lakota began having trouble climbing into the extended cab of their truck. The van is lower to the ground. Paul took out the middle seats, padded everything, and put Lakota’s bed and his toys in there. “We put pillows between the front seats on the console; Kota would rest his head there and check on us from time to time,” Paul said. “He could walk around and stretch his legs a little as we traveled. The van had a power sliding door that Kota loved.”

Karen and Paul own a transportation cab company in Jackson Hole, Wyoming that transports tourists from the airport, around town and the valley, up to Yellowstone. During Lakota’s first two months with the Kirschlings, he was the star passenger in Paul’s cab. Paul made a bed with small pillows and towels, where Lakota happily rode shotgun, making stops at home for lunch and water. Paul feels that being around the passengers is probably why Lakota grew into such an exceptionally loving and accepting companion. “He loved people and loved to meet new people. He’d give a little bark or two to begin with, then go to the tail wagging,” Paul said.

Knowing that Lakota had passed, family friends in Dayton who knew and loved Lakota called Paul to ask if he had heard about the pet food recall. Being close to the Iams and Proctor & Gamble offices, a lot of news was circulating in their area. They gave Paul an 800 number to call.

“I called and told them about my suspicions since I’d been feeding their food to Lakota. The person who answered the phone said to please send our vet bills to them. I told them I’d be happy to do that, but that wasn’t what I really wanted—that I wanted somebody to bring Kota back,” Paul said. “The vet bill was not anything I really cared about. But I made copies and sent the bill to Iams Consumer Relations in Dayton, OH, as requested.” That was in mid-March, but Paul has not heard a word of response from anyone.

After reading about Lakota and the Kirschlings in the Jackson Hole News, a woman contacted Dr. Periman, saying she had a six-month old Chocolate Lab she would like Karen and Paul to have. She got him from a friend who had to move away from Jackson Hole and didn’t feel like she could give the Lab the home he deserves. “And after reading the article, she decided that the home her Chocolate Lab deserved was our home, mine and Karen’s,” Paul said. “She asked me to consider taking him—not that she didn’t want him, but she couldn’t spend enough time with him. She’s a single gal who works five days a week and feels like she can’t be as fair to him as we would be.”

Paul mustered up all the courage he had and went to look at the young Lab. “He was absolutely beautiful,” Paul said. “He reminded me in so many ways of Kota in his youth. He was a big boy, too—he had a lot of paws to grow into. I spent about a half-hour with him. He was well loved and I could see that. But as I walked away, I felt like I couldn’t do that to Lakota. When I got home, I told Karen about the Lab pup. She said, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ I said I can’t either right now.”

“There’s too much hurt right now. Others have said to me if you do get another dog, don’t get the same kind. In my heart I said to myself, ‘you must be nuts! It would be the only kind I would have!’ The way we loved and shared our lives together, I wouldn’t think of anything but another Lab. Kota was unbelievable—no one will ever know. And I thank God for every day he was with us.”

All Labs would like to thank the Kirschling Family for sharing their tragic story with us so we could share it with our fellow Lab owners. We are so grateful for their courage and strength during this time and send them our deepest sympathies for their devastating loss.
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