We joked that the title of the book should have been, “Eerie Encounters with Rikki.”
During the five years of research and writing about therapy dog Rikki, Chuck Mitchell and I marveled at the number of “coincidental” discoveries along the way. He sometimes called while driving home after a visit—the rehab center or state mental hospital perhaps—and say, “You aren’t going to believe what just happened . . .”
Many of those stories made it into the book “Encounters with Rikki: From Hurricane Katrina rescue to exceptional therapy dog.” Still, I was stunned to receive an email from Chuck two days after she “crossed over the rainbow bridge.” It began, “OK, Rikki was spooky in life, but since her death, Julie . . .”
The fall of her eleventh year, the smaller-size Golden Retriever had let Chuck and Patty—her pet mom and dad—know she was ready for retirement. Call it a mood change. By then she had interacted with more than 20,000 people as part of a therapy dog team. Her working career involved helping kids learn how to read, comforting traumatized children so they could tell their stories in the court system, and motivating patients in their rehabilitation efforts after injury.
A few months into what should have been her autumn of life, Rikki developed a brain tumor; it was obstructing more than 60 percent of her spinal cord, causing seizures and limiting her mobility. The Mitchells chose hospice care to keep Rikki comfortable in her final stages of life. Chuck said, “Taking care of Rikki and trying to make her feel better was an honor and a blessing. . . an opportunity for us to do for her what she’d spent her life doing for others.” Incredibly, Rikki was able to attend a celebration in her honor hosted by the Leon County Commission and State Attorney’s office and another at the TMH Neuro Rehab, where she visited weekly for eight years. She defied all odds by standing, walking, wagging her tail and sharing her gentle smile with the crowds that came to say goodbye. Rikki also held on through the signing of a new state law she inspired that allows therapy and facility dogs to accompany victims and witnesses into both dependency and family court. (Rikki was also credited with the criminal court version approved in 2011). And the little Golden hung around for artist Sandy Proctor to finish a bronze sculpture of her, which was commissioned by the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and destined for the entrance of the Neuro Rehab Center.
The morning of May 10, 2017, in her own language, Rikki signaled she was ready to go over the rainbow bridge. Chuck called their vet, Dr. Julia Stege, who arranged to come to their home later that day. As Rikki lay on the floor, Chuck comforted her with baby carrots—her favorite treat—and she munched and swallowed two of them. Chuck noticed she didn’t finish the third, but just held it on the side of her mouth. “She’d never not eaten a carrot before,” Chuck said, “so I figured this was surely a sign that she was ready to go.” Dr. Stege arrived and Rikki died peacefully with Chuck and Patty on the floor next to her.
Before the vet tech came to gather Rikki’s body, which was wrapped in an “angel bag,” Chuck reached in to stroke and hold her head one more time. He remembered the missing carrot and thought he’d get it out of her mouth. “The only one I’ve ever given her that she didn’t eat,” he said. “I really wanted that carrot.” But he couldn’t find it. He thought it was curious, since her head had been in his lap the whole time and he would have seen if she spit it out. Chuck later looked around on the carpet where they’d gathered at home but found nothing. He didn’t say anything about the missing carrot to anyone but Patty.
The mystery was solved the next day through an email reply to Chuck’s message about Rikki’s passing. It was from Jim Duval, whose wife Betsy had credited Rikki with spurring her recovery from a Traumatic Brain Injury. He wrote:
Chuck: Had a dream last night. Rikki approached the gates of heaven and St. Peter said “Hello, Rikki, we know of all the great things you did on earth, and we have a place for you. However, what do you have for me to be able to pass through these gates?” Rikki rested her head on Peter’s lap and dropped a carrot. “Pass this way,” said St. Peter. – Jim D.