It's one of those ironies of life. Sometimes people who bring the most joy to others are themselves tortured. Stephen Huneck, 60, was an author and artist who depicted canine whimsy and devotion as few ever have.
On Jan. 7, according to his wife, Gwen, Huneck shot himself. According to press reports, she noted that Huneck had been despondent and was being treated for depression. She added that because of the economic downturn, the couple feared losing their St. Johnsbury, VT home and mountaintop farm, dubbed Dog Mountain. Huneck was also upset about being forced to lay out off employees at the couple's art studio and the Dog Chapel, which Huneck opened in 1999.
Imagine a picture of two Labrador retrievers, each with one end of the same rope toy in their mouths, with the caption, "Life is give and take." Or another of a dog sniffing another pooch's posterior (as dogs will do), with the caption, "Greetings." Simple -- yet just right.
In his first book, "My Dog's Brain," Huneck revealed the anatomy of a canine brain as few have ever seen it. The front lobe is call "food." Farther back, another section of the brain is called "chasing cats," another is dubbed "getting petted," and another is simply labeled "love." This 1997 release was an instant best seller, followed by "Sally Goes to the Mountain," "Sally Goes to the Beach" and "Sally Goes to the Vet."
Huneck's big break actually came in 1995. He was lugging a 125-pound wooden carving of a dog down a stairway when he took a tumble and broke some ribs. At the hospital, he contracted an infection and slipped into a coma.
In an interview from March, 2001, Huneck remembered the experience, saying, "Well, it was very restful." Of course, he had no idea how close he came to dying. He recalled that he was too busy "talking" with dead relatives to notice. His recovery included a stay in a nursing home. The place was "pretty sad," he said, but his spirits was lifted whenever a therapy dog came to visit. "I can't tell you what a difference dogs can make. I learned how spiritual dogs are," he said. "They have a power within them to heal that I don't believe mere people can yet understand."
In "Sally Goes to the Vet," Sally -- based on Huneck's beloved real-life Labrador -- Sally trips over a tree root while romping with her pal, Bingo the cat. In an interview from 2004, Huneck told me, "Veterinarians are amazing. They have to figure out what's going on with patients who cannot speak to them. You sure don't become a vet to make big bucks or for glory; you do it because you're all about animals. I think being a veterinarian is one of the best things you can be."
Unfortunately, even Huneck's own veterinarian could not save the real-life Sally. She began to have seizures without warning. Huneck happened to be nearby and ran to his friend to hold her. "She died in my arms, as I was hugging her," Huneck said and began to weep. "At least the other dogs were there -- I think they were curious and in some way understood. And I'm grateful I was there to say 'goodbye.' But, I wasn't ready to say goodbye."
Sally is among the thousands of pets memorialized at the Dog Chapel near Huneck's home. He built and designed the chapel as a spiritual refuge for anyone who wanted to visit to remember and celebrate the life of a pet. When I asked him about the fee, he acted surprised and responded, "It has to be free."
Sally was only 9 when she died, way too early, of a brain tumor. Of course, Huneck also died far too early. Many have called the Dog Chapel a little bit of heaven on earth. Clearly, it took an angel to build such a place.
Of all his many art pieces, Huneck once told me his favorite was Angel Dog -- a lithograph depicting a canine angel complete with wings -- flying toward the stars, holding a shoe in its mouth. The print includes the words, "Dogs Have a Soul."
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.