Losing a best friend

As people carry their plastic bags and cardboard to bins at the Ashland Recycling Center, they spy pictures of Huggy, a big, friendly, furry Malamute-husky mix, on a table with flowers, a box of ashes and a sign that says "in loving memory."

They stop cold in their tracks as it sinks in that the "ruler of the roost" — after 14 years of dog smiles and tail-wagging greetings to one and all — will no longer be there.

Known as Huggy Bear, Honey Bear or just Bear, the old boy had been hit by a series of seizures and was on two medications, says his owner, Tim Church, who for 20 years has run the Water Street center. But last Saturday, "the big one" took Huggy away, Church said.

"A lot of people knew him and would bring him treats and pet him," Church said. "One guy said, 'Well, since Huggy died, there's no reason for me to come down here anymore.' He had a good life. Folks loved him."

The Church family often fosters dogs from the Jackson County animal shelter. Huggy in 1997 was one of them, but went to a family in Grants Pass. Church vowed that if the lovable dog was returned to the pound, he'd take him.

Huggy did end up back at the pound. And Church, though his family had two dogs already, kept his promise.

"People would say, 'You have the best-looking dog' but they wouldn't say that about me. It's hard to compete with your dog," joked Church. Quoting Will Rogers, he added, "If dogs aren't allowed in heaven, I want to go where they go."

Customer Fred Krasner, like most people, expressed dismay and condolences to Church and gave him a hug.

"He was a member of the family, a fixture here," Krasner said about Huggy. "He was always a pal to the foster dogs you had here."

Church smiled at the memory, recalling how foster dogs looked up to Huggy and would glance at him to see what was right and wrong for them to do.

Huggy would come to work with Church every day and knew his territory — from the tracks to Hersey Street, with adjacent Ashland Creek thrown in.

Just getting the sad news, customer Isabeau Vollhardt said, "He was a great dog, always happy, always friendly, rain or shine, one of the best examples ever of a really good-natured dog who gets along with people. He was calm, relaxed and open — a reminder to people who may be afraid of big dogs, that big dogs can be cool."

Jennifer Schloming noted that, as the Recycling Center reconnected people with the Earth, Huggy reminded them that animals do that, too — and they make it a better place for us.

The memorial table includes a vase of flowers, donated by Kellie Kinkead of Eufloria, who noted, "Huggie was pure love and joy, a very powerful healer. People could be stressed out when they went in there and you could see the shift to calmness — his love was so unconditional."

Church is undecided whether a new shelter dog can eventually replace "Hug," as Church called him. One Sunday soon, when the center is closed, the family will scatter his ashes about the area and say their thanks and farewells.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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