The first time I saw them, I was pretty sure it was some sort of mirage, a trick conjured up by my mind. The second time, I acknowledged they were real.
The third time, I knew there was a story there just waiting to be written, and I knew I had to write it, because the goggle-wearing, motorcycle-riding German Shepherd and his human best friend were clearly the kind of tale that needed to be told.
And so I did, showcasing the dog – Winky, as he was called – and his best friend/owner Sandy in my column in Your McMurray Magazine.
Last night Winky, after a brief and as yet unexplained illness, passed away.
I read the news in utter shock and horror, because despite his age of ten years, Winky was a remarkably healthy canine and in excellent condition. But there was more to my sorrow than just that, because Winky was more than a dog.
Winky was one of those things that are best about Fort McMurray.
Winky and Sandy went on long adventures, Sandy piloting the motorcycle as they headed south and Winky wearing his goggles and grinning the entire time. Winky and Sandy made friends and fans across Canada and the United States, and their notoriety simply grew over time because there was no way one could ignore the two best friends who rode together in such harmony, despite being different species.
When I interviewed Sandy and Winky, I was bemused that not only Sandy but Winky seemed nervous, as people being interviewed often are. Winky, just like an anxious person, paced the room and seemed a wee bit edgy until all three of us settled into a nice chat. The truth is that Winky and Sandy were so tightly bonded that Winky knew Sandy was a little nervous about the interview, so Winky was too, and when Sandy relaxed and eased into it so did Winky, resting his soft furry head on my knee at several points and gazing into my eyes with his huge puppy dog ones.
It was one of the most remarkable interviews I have ever done, because it was the first. and perhaps only, time I have interviewed a dog. And the crazy thing was that the dog seemed to know he was being interviewed.
I watched with delight as Winky and Sandy attracted more attention, which drew even more people to their fundraising for the Fort McMurray SPCA. The dynamic duo raised thousands of dollars, doing so quite independently, and based on nothing more than the pure whimsy and charm of a motorcycle riding dog and his best friend.
Along with thousands of others, I followed their adventures, and I laughed at Winky’s antics. More than anything I marveled at the strength of their connection, and the beauty of the human-animal bond so clearly evident between them.
And last night, I cried.
Winky was an ambassador for this region, the kind marketers and tourism companies dream about. He and Sandy traveled the continent showcasing the best of Wood Buffalo – compassion, friendship, generosity, innovation and a brave spirit.
Our community is facing a veterinary care crisis at the moment, as the wildfire in May and a recent building fire have left our three local veterinary clinics deeply impacted. Last night, Sandy was unable to secure the services of an on-call emergency veterinarian, and this simply compounded an already troubling tragedy. Since last night I have swung between tears of sorrow and anger, and the desire to lash out has been quite profound, but anger will not bring Winky back. I hope, however, the loss of Winky serves as a catalyst to ensure this issue is addressed immediately, because while we lost Fort McMurray’s most famous canine last night, I fear other pets – including my own – are at grave risk as long as this situation lasts. To do anything less than everything that can possibly be done to ensure emergency services are available would be a tremendous disservice to Winky, his memory and his legacy. As someone who managed veterinary clinics for a decade, I believe this is a critical moment for their professional reputation in our community – but for the moment that is all I will say about that, as I do not wish to sully the memory of Winky with anger.
And that’s because it was impossible to feel anger around Winky. When you saw him, one could only smile and laugh, because how could you feel anything but joy when seeing a dog wearing goggles and smiling, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, as he and his most loved friend zoomed down the highway?
And so that is the sentiment I choose to carry with me today. I honour Winky’s memory by remembering him in his trailer, goggles on and ears flapping gently in the wind. I remember the way he and Sandy spoke to each other without speaking, so deeply connected that they were quite clearly family, not pet and owner.
My deepest condolences go to Sandy, who has become a friend and for whom I would do pretty much anything, as he is one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met.
I would encourage those who wish to honour Winky to do two things: hug your pets, and donate to the Fort McMurray SPCA, the cause Sandy and Winky have been so devoted to.
And maybe a third thing.
Remember Winky. Remember a dog who loved to ride, who hopped into his trailer behind that motorcycle at every opportunity and who lived life with zest and joy and exuberance and like a giant puppy even when he was ten years old.
We can all learn something from that, I think.
If heaven is real, and there are motorcycles, I am betting there is now a trailer there with a resident goggle-wearing German Shepherd going for his everlasting ride.
Good night. sweet Winky.