Saying goodbye to a beloved companion

By Ashley Oliverio EBS Contributor

Some people say it’s a rare animal that can serve as both the perfect hunting dog and a loving family pet. That crossover may be rare, but Shade had it.

The 8-year-old black lab was Jim McEnroe’s constant companion since he raised her from a pup, and she retrieved her first bird for him when she was just 5 months old. Well trained and well behaved, you could take her anywhere without a leash and she would follow and obey – except during mealtime, when she lustily gobbled her food.

In McEnroe’s work trucks, Shade was his predictable sidekick during their daily rounds in Big Sky, while McEnroe operated his snowplowing and property management business. Running before the horses, dashing ahead on hikes, she lapped around the Spanish Peaks effortlessly.

Shade hunting pheasants with Big Sky’s Jim McEnroe in North Dakota this fall PHOTO BY ASHLEY OLIVERIO

Shade hunting pheasants with Big Sky’s Jim McEnroe in North Dakota this fall PHOTOS BY ASHLEY OLIVERIO

In August, McEnroe’s close hunting buddy Kris Killorn observed that Shade was in the best physical shape of her life. The next week, as she dashed up an embankment to chase a bird, she pulled up lame and backed down to the road. While her spirits still soared, her rear leg began to swell more noticeably each day, and lumps appeared under her fur. Eating became a chore, so we prodded Shade by hand feeding her.

From the first sign of trouble four weeks prior, the transition was alarming. The vet diagnosed her with malignant histiocytosis, a disease characterized by tumors that spread swiftly to organs and joints. It was inoperable and terminal. Shade now lay listlessly in the yard or the living room mostly, in what appeared to be a slow and miserable descent.

For the past year, we had planned an October pheasant hunt on a ranch near Mott, N.D. So we decided, with life still in her and hope still in us, Shade would go on one final adventure.

We stopped in Glendive, Mont., for a warm-up. Since she could no longer run beside us, we loaded Shade’s dog bed into the large plastic toolbox secured to the back of our four-wheeler, and Shade rode with us across the wheat-stubble fields.

When we spotted a grouse gliding into the tall grass, we stopped and McEnroe unloaded Shade. Without him asking, she darted forward and flushed the bird, which fell at one bang of McEnroe’s shotgun. Shade half limped, half pranced back to us with the tawny gray prize in her mouth.

In North Dakota, the pheasants teemed on opening day under sunny skies. The members of our hunting party gazed at Shade with pity, her legs swollen and barely able to support her. McEnroe explained her diagnosis but insisted she would join the other dogs on the chase. His assurance was met with skeptical looks.

“Hunt ‘em up!” McEnroe commanded, and Shade went to work. With a

Shade bringing in her last bird, during her final hunt

Shade bringing in her last bird, during her final hunt

nose as keen as ever above her panting smile, Shade sniffed out the birds. Zigzagging her way across the grass, darting into bushes, crashing through cornfields, she flushed the roosters from their hiding places. McEnroe’s crack shooting gave her plenty to bring proudly back.

With our legal limit bulging in our orange vests, we returned to the hunting lodge to share the news of Shade’s triumph with our shocked companions. By the following morning, Shade’s leg swelling had nearly disappeared, and she ran without an obvious catch in her step. She ate without being coaxed. Maybe it wasn’t her last hunt after all, we thought.

Reality is relentless, however. The next day Shade dashed past the ranch’s hunting-dog graveyard, its crosses serving as reminders of our only real option: to wring joy out of every minute left on this hunt.

Stopping overnight on our way home to Big Sky, we spent the day pursuing pheasants, and Shade embraced her life’s work with unhesitating zeal – she was sharp, alert and enthusiastic.

When we returned home, the sun of our hunting trip was already in eclipse, as McEnroe had to carry Shade in and out of the house. She lost all interest in food; raising her head brought on labored breathing. Her symptoms returned with shocking aggression, and within three days it was over.

A day after Shade died, a longtime hunting friend called and was told the news. He said he was sorry and would miss her. “Shade had a great last hunt,” McEnroe replied. “We all should be so lucky to go out like that.”

We both realized that he wasn’t just talking about a dog. And Shade would never be just a dog to us.

Ashley Oliverio is a Big Sky resident and freelance writer. She took up big game hunting this year in Africa and embarked on her first grouse and pheasant hunts this fall with her partner Jim McEnroe.