Jerry Francisco, a handyman by trade, has come up against something he can't fix: the death of his dog Cuddles.
He sits in his neat, nondescript apartment in southwest Denver with new puppy Skippy, but his heart is with Cuddles. He shows off Cuddles's puppy teeth, tags and toys. He sniffs at clumps of hair clipped from the mixed poodle/ terrier. He pulls out a bag of clothes that his wife, Betty, sewed for Cuddles. He looks at the pictures of Cuddles on the wall. He sobs as he reads a fourteen-page letter he wrote to Cuddles after she passed away last New Year's Day. "You lil ole sweet mutt, you are us and we are you," Jerry wrote. "We are one and the same...We smell your unique little doggy scent--even your poop de poo--and it is all good. These things are our treasure. Mom and Daddy are touching you even now."
But Jerry and Betty can't put her back together again.
Lord knows they've tried. For the past seven months they've picketed the veterinary clinic on South Downing Street where the fourteen-year-old Cuddles died. And although the Franciscos got hit late last month with a million-dollar lawsuit from the clinic for alleged libel and slander, they say they will continue picketing.
"To say we loved Cuddles is an understatement--we worshiped and adored her," says Jerry, speaking with the twang of the Franciscos' native West Virginia. Jerry and Betty are a childless couple in their early fifties; they lavished all their love on Cuddles, a pound puppy who'd long suffered from sporadic vomiting. Shortly before Christmas last year, however, the aging Cuddles took seriously ill. The Franciscos' regular vet referred the couple to the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado. Within days the dog was dead. Jerry still talks about the "thick green mucus" that bubbled out of Cuddles's nose and mouth toward the end.
When he and Betty picked up Cuddles's body at the clinic, Jerry recalls, Betty told the veterinarian on duty, "You people have no idea how much we love this little girl."
They certainly do by now.
Several times a week the Franciscos march in front of the clinic, wearing sandwich-board signs that read "Cuddles is dead. Why?" and "We trusted and Cuddles died" and "Cuddles wanted to live." They hand out fliers explaining their version of what happened to "the love of our life."
Dr. Carroll Loyer, one of the targets of their wrath, obtained a temporary restraining order against the picketing last spring, but when it expired, the Franciscos stepped up their appearances. Early in the dispute, Loyer offered the couple $500--"It was to be used only for grief counseling," he says--but the Franciscos turned it down. They then asked Loyer for $18,000 for their suffering. He turned that down. And now Loyer has sued the Franciscos, claiming that the months of picketing have cost the clinic's specialty veterinarians $500,000 worth of business. He and his partner have lost an additional $500,000, Loyer claims.
"It's a very sad story for the Franciscos," says Loyer, who insists he did nothing wrong in his treatment of Cuddles. "It's sad where their brain has led them."
The Franciscos accuse Loyer and other people at the clinic of being insensitive. They also throw around the word "negligence," which makes Loyer irate. According to state records, Loyer has never been disciplined for his performance as a vet. (The Franciscos' complaint against him will be considered by the Colorado State Board of Veterinary Medicine on November 3, officials say.)
Cuddles suffered from hypertrophic gastropathy--stomach problems--and actually died from pneumonia, which was a complication of her condition, according to Loyer. The Franciscos say Loyer and others at the clinic ignored signs of the pneumonia.
But the illness wasn't sudden. Cuddles had suffered from stomach problems for several years. Last December the vomiting became so severe that Cuddles wound up at the Downing Street clinic. "We see difficult cases," says Loyer, who specializes in internal medicine and cardiology. "And I see very, very bad diseases. Often I have bad news for people."
He had terrible news for the Franciscos: Cuddles had died at the clinic. He says they didn't take it well, which Jerry Francisco acknowledges.
"Everything was like a bad dream at high speed," recalls Jerry. "I got quite upset. I got very mad. I said to him, `We told your technicians for several days that Cuddles was sick.' I said, `We're coming to get her body, and we don't want to see you or anybody. Just stay the hell away and leave us alone.' He told me he considered my behavior threatening."
The Franciscos fetched Cuddles's body, took her home, washed and dressed her and buried her in the pines off North Turkey Creek Road. In her coffin they placed toys, a letter to her, some cookies and some of Jerry's socks.
"I drank a quart of bourbon in three days," recalls Jerry. "And it didn't help a damn bit. I felt like I wanted to be in that grave with Cuddles."
Has drinking hindered Jerry's judgment when it comes to Cuddles? He denies it, although he admits taking to drink after her death and to recently being cited for driving while impaired. Betty says Jerry has "allergy problems," not a drinking problem.
Grief and guilt are also a problem, he admits. Counseling, however, is out of the question, despite the fact that local veterinarians offer such sessions for free.
"For me, it's a personal thing, like religion," says Jerry. "My relationship with Cuddles is very, very personal. I don't want to share it with others."
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He acknowledges that the picketing makes their private turmoil public.
"Yes, it's a constant reminder," Jerry says. "But as long as we feel like doing it, we might be doing it twenty years from now. Everything we've done has been deliberate and thought out--the consequences, too."
What do they want? The Franciscos outline vague notions about the clinic's employees being more sensitive and caring. "We're not in it for the money, although I'm sure a lot of people would say that. We wanted to help other animals at the clinic," says Betty, an office manager when she isn't picketing with her husband. "We're not after revenge. Hopefully, we'll have the clinic think about this. And people with pets will learn to ask questions and demand answers."
But something sharp and dangerous clearly is sticking into Jerry's heart. His letter to Cuddles has a finality that is unsettling. In it, he vows, "We will not let you down. We will be with you in your new world. Be patient, you lil ole sweet mutt. We will be with you in just a little while. In just a minute."
"Are we fanatics?" asks Jerry. "Well, maybe. But I think if you love something, you can't be a fanatic. What's the worst thing that can happen to us? It already has. Cuddles has died. My wife and I are stubborn. We can roll over and play dead, or we can pay the price.