It’s been a rough dog month. Several of my friends have lost furry companions recently, one under extremely unfortunate circumstances.

Losing a loved one is difficult, no matter what the species. There is something unique about the love and loss of a dog, however, that carries its own special sorrow. Of course, every owner’s relationship with their dog is different; but for me, the melancholy and sadness that comes with losing a dog is brought forth by the questions: did my dog know how much I loved her? Did she know how much she meant to me? Did I live up to the loyalty and love that she gave to me freely? Was I good enough to her?

The curse and blessing of the human-dog relationship is that it is not bound by language, that is to say, expressive vocal communication. Sure, dogs can learn commands and they can detect emotion in our voices (though often facial expressions are the key). But when it comes to actually communicating with our dogs, words and sentences fail us. As result, we never have the surety of verbal affirmation when it comes to the question: does my dog know I love her? Nor the inverse: does she love me?

Humans can tell each other this. They can ask and be answered. And even if the response is false, at least we were able to hear it. We can remember it. And from these exchanges we can draw confidence and security in knowing that we told someone we loved them and they heard it. We can feel good inside when we recall someone else saying it to us.

We can never have that definitive memory when it comes to our relationship with our dog. And when you have a companion that is so loyal, forgiving, non-judgemental, friendly, fun, and easy-to-please, the death of that companion leaves you wondering if you came up short on your end of the responsibility. Did she know? Did I show it to her often enough and in enough ways? Did she forgive me for the times I was angry, frustrated, or too busy to spend time with her? She showered me with her love and tail wags and playful barks her whole life; rewarded me with her patience, obedience, and fellowship. Was I worthy of it?

It is this unfortunate truth that makes me empathize with friends and family when they lose their canine companions. And it is this same truth that makes me feel a swell of hope when I hear stories like this one about Tarra and Bella. It was this CBS news story that first introduced me to The Elephant Sanctuary, a remarkable organization that cares for elephants who have been “retired” from the entertainment or zoo industry and finally given a hard-earned respite, with 2200 acres to roam free without threat of predators,and away from the things of man. The fact that stray dogs are allowed to roam there as well makes it all the better.

The friendship of these two animals of different species is notable indeed. But why is it more notable (to us) than the friendship between human and dog? In both cases you have two specimens of different species sharing in a mutual relationship, establishing companionship (if not friendship), and even co-dependency. But for some reason the nature of this elephant-dog friendship is remarkable. Why?

I believe it is because of the absence of language between them. There is no spoken agreement, no commands given, no evident social order established. These two animals were able to create, define, and continue with an enduring friendship without a single spoken word or established rule between them. And because of that, I am hopeful that my dog does indeed understand how important she is to me. When the day comes for us to part ways, I shall try to remember Tarra and Bella’s trans-special friendship.

Of course, all good things…

Recently, The Elephant Sanctuary eNewsletter informed me that Bella had passed, and under most violent and primal circumstances at that. It seems Bella fell prey to coyotes on the sanctuary grounds and met an untimely death. You can read more about it here. Or you can watch the CBS follow-up segment here.

I cannot decide which is more heartbreaking, the fact that Tarra likely happened upon Bella during or just after the attack and was unable to protect her, or that apparently Tarra carried her body back to her home on the sanctuary grounds and laid her near the pond where they had sat together in peace and silence so many times. These final acts, and Tarra’s relationship with Bella as a whole, will continue to serve as a testament to the power of friendship and the ability of two species to share a bond.

Here is a page dedicated to Bella’s memory with links to several videos of these unlikely friends and to her memorial fund.
Here is a page with tributes to Bella, showing how many lives were touched by this stray dog’s story.
And if you are so inclined, here is the Elephant Sanctuary’s donation page.

My heart goes out to all my friends and family members who have lost their dog companions recently, and yes, even (if not especially) Tarra, the elephant whose life has known so much pain already. Their heartbreak is a powerful prompt of what someday lies ahead for my own dogs. It reminds me to make the most of the time I have with them. To be patient, loving, and deserving of their loyalty. And, even if I can’t tell them how much I love them, to show it as often and fully as possible. And to look for hints of the same from them.

Here’s to celebrating these notable friendships, no matter how tragically or unexpectedly they may end. Whether they last years, months, or days doesn’t matter. The fact that they happened at all is what is truly remarkable.